Cowper’s Influence on Jane Austen

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Fanny Price, the timid heroine of Mansfield Park, never feels at home. Taken at nine from the chaos of her family house in Portsmouth, she grows up in the grandeur of Mansfield Park, under the care of her uncle and aunt, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram. But although Sir Thomas at the outset declared, ‘Let her home be in this house’, he fails to see the divisiveness of Mrs Norris’s insistence that Fanny be brought up to know her place, never to consider herself on an equal footing with the Bertram children. It is Mrs Norris who plans this relegation in concrete terms, suggesting Fanny be given ‘the little white Attic, near the Old Nurseries … close by the housemaids’.1 Such security as Fanny has is threatened when she is fifteen. Widowhood means Mrs Norris must leave the parsonage and move to a smaller cottage. The Bertrams assume, wrongly, that she will do her duty by Fanny and take her to live with her. When the news is casually broken by Lady Bertram, Fanny is aghast: ‘And am I never to live here again?’ ‘Never, my dear; but you are sure of a comfortable home. It can make very little difference to you, whether you are in one house or the other.’2 Fortunately for Fanny, this does not come to pass. But this failure to understand the difference between a house and a home remains a quietly powerful revelation of the Bertrams’ lack of sensibility in a novel which takes home, homelessness and exile as its central theme. It is one of great personal significance to Jane Austen herself. Her loss of her own family home in her mid-twenties affected her severely. In this essay I want to explore the profound influence of Cowper on Austen’s thoughts and feelings about

Fanny Price, the timid heroine of Mansfield Park, never feels at home.

Taken at nine from the chaos of her family house in Portsmouth, she

grows up in the grandeur of Mansfield Park, under the care of her uncle

and aunt, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram. But although Sir Thomas at

the outset declared, ‘Let her home be in this house’, he fails to see the

divisiveness of Mrs Norris’s insistence that Fanny be brought up to know

her place, never to consider herself on an equal footing with the Bertram

children. It is Mrs Norris who plans this relegation in concrete terms,

suggesting Fanny be given ‘the little white Attic, near the Old Nurseries

… close by the housemaids’.1

Such security as Fanny has is threatened when she is fifteen.

Widowhood means Mrs Norris must leave the parsonage and move to

a smaller cottage. The Bertrams assume, wrongly, that she will do her

duty by Fanny and take her to live with her. When the news is casually

broken by Lady Bertram, Fanny is aghast:

‘And am I never to live here again?’

‘Never, my dear; but you are sure of a comfortable home. It can make very

little difference to you, whether you are in one house or the other.’2

Fortunately for Fanny, this does not come to pass. But this failure to

understand the difference between a house and a home remains a quietly

powerful revelation of the Bertrams’ lack of sensibility in a novel which

takes home, homelessness and exile as its central theme. It is one of

great personal significance to Jane Austen herself. Her loss of her own

family home in her mid-twenties affected her severely. In this essay I

want to explore the profound influence of Cowper on Austen’s thoughts

and feelings about the necessity of finding a true home. Her love of

Cowper’s poetry is, of course, well known. Many of us remember Fanny

Price’s passionate reaction to the proposed felling of an avenue of trees

on a neighbouring estate:

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‘Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does not it make you think of Cowper?

“Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited”.’3

But I what I hope to demonstrate in this essay is the more profound and

pervasive influence of Cowper on Jane Austen.

‘This nest of comforts’

Only when Fanny is eighteen does Austen reveal how she has responded

to her banishment to the ‘little white Attic’. Over time she has developed

a consolatory response to her situation, creating her own tiny domain.

On the floor below her attic bedroom is the old schoolroom where she

and the Bertram girls had been tutored. No longer in use, it has now

been grandly retitled ‘the East room’. But it is a space that no one

wants. So when Fanny begins to colonise it with her books and plants,

spending more and more time there, it becomes generally accepted that

the East room belongs to her. Even Mrs Norris’s spiteful stipulation

for ‘there never being a fire in it on Fanny’s account’, cannot spoil the

deep pleasure Fanny takes in it.4 Austen rarely gives details of rooms or

costumes, but at this moment we are invited to gaze at the space which

Fanny has transformed into a home:

The aspect was so favourable, that even without a fire it was habitable in

many an early spring, and late autumn morning, to such a willing mind as

Fanny’s, and while there was a gleam of sunshine, she hoped not to be driven

from it entirely, even when winter came. The comfort of it in her hours of

leisure was extreme. She could go there after any thing unpleasant below,

and find immediate consolation in some pursuit, or some train of thought at

hand. – Her plants, her books – of which she had been a collector, from the

first hour of her commanding a shilling – her writing desk, and her works of

charity and ingenuity, were all within her reach.5

Those of us who know Cowper will recognise here a poignantly

Cowperian sensibility. Cowper’s evocations of himself, comfortably

insulated from the world, dreaming beside a wintry fire, had appealed to

his readers, Jane Austen among them, from the publication of The Task

(1785). His posthumously published letters added to this new literary

celebration of intimate domestic space. We think of him in his greenhouse

(‘a cabinet of perfumes’) or playing with a new kitten (‘she is dressed

in a tortoise-shell suit’).6 But as he revealed in ‘On the Receipt of My

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Mother’s Picture out of Norfolk’, his childhood was overshadowed by

his mother’s death just before his sixth birthday. Writing in 1790, he

continues to cherish the memory of maternal love:

Thy nightly visits to my chamber made,

That thou mightst know me safe and warmly laid;

Thy morning bounties ere I left my home,

The biscuit, or confectionary plum;

The fragrant waters on my cheeks bestow’d

By thy own hand, till fresh they shone and glow’d;

All this, and more endearing still than all,

Thy constant flow of love, that knew no fall … (58-65)

Fanny too is a wounded spirit, the only one of Jane Austen’s heroines we

have followed since her troubled childhood; we know her still to suffer

acutely from fears and anxieties. Like Cowper, Fanny finds consolation

in retreat to a space whose psychological significance we are now attuned

to – a room of her own. Here she can read and write and think: in other

words, attend to her inner life. Her possessions are few but imbued with

great personal meaning:

She could scarcely see an object in that room which had not an interesting

remembrance connected with it. – Every thing was a friend, or bore her

thoughts to a friend…7

Her writing desk reminds us of Jane Austen’s own treasured mahogany

box, a present from her father. Fanny, far from feeling deprived or resentful

at the luxuries allowed her cousins, draws enormous contentment from

this modest room. Indeed Austen reinforces the theme of true domestic

happiness in this novel by using the words ‘comfort’ and ‘comfortable’

some two hundred times.

But let us return to where we left off:

Every thing was a friend, or bore her thoughts to a friend; and though there

had been sometimes much of suffering to her – though her motives had been

often misunderstood, her feelings disregarded, and her comprehension undervalued;

though she had known the pains of tyranny, of ridicule, and neglect,

yet almost every recurrence of either had led to something consolatory; her

Aunt Bertram had spoken for her, or Miss Lee had been encouraging, or what

was yet more frequent or more dear – Edmund had been her champion and

her friend; – he had supported her cause, or explained her meaning, he had

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told her not to cry, or had given her some proof of affection which made her

tears delightful – and the whole was now so blended together, so harmonized

by distance , that every former affliction had its charm.8

It is a quite extraordinary sentence. Its length, with its gently oscillating

thoughts, reflects Fanny’s lengthy meditations on the meaning of

suffering. Jane Austen well understood a child’s vulnerability to pain.

‘… & yet one’s heart aches for a dejected Mind of eight years old’, she

exclaimed in a letter of 1808 as she thought of a niece who had just lost

her mother.9 But Austen also understood how seemingly minor knocks

to a sensitive child can be experienced as deep wounds, as ‘the pains of

tyranny, of ridicule, and neglect’. Equally significant, however, is the

very evident strength afforded to Fanny by her developing inner world.

Her acute sensibility has allowed her to transform her suffering: ‘almost

every recurrence of either had led to something consolatory’, ‘and the

whole was now so blended together, so harmonized by distance, that

every former affliction had its charm.’ She is able to recall the pleasure

of feeling championed and comforted by one of the few guardian figures

in the novel. For Fanny, who frequently feels invisible, these moments

of being seen, of being cherished, are very dear indeed.

Fanny’s finely tuned sensibility has enabled her to find a way to heal

former wounds, although it cannot entirely protect from future ones, as

Austen goes on to illustrate. By the time she began writing Mansfield

Park in 1811, Austen’s understanding of the true nature of sensibility

had deepened from her earlier writing. In her boisterous juvenile fiction,

fashionable sensibility was one of the main targets of her satire. In

‘Amelia Webster’, for example, George is suitably overwhelmed by the

beauties of the eponymous heroine: I saw you thro’ a telescope, and was

so struck by your Charms that from that time to this I have not tasted

human food.’10 Even Sense and Sensibility begins, at least, by inviting us

to laugh at Marianne Dashwood’s self-conscious displays of sensibility

in the early scenes. It is she who uses her love of Cowper’s poetry to

condemn Edward Ferrars as an unworthy suitor for her sister.

‘I could not be happy with a man whose taste did not in every point coincide

with my own. He must enter into all my feelings; the same books, the

same music must charm us both. Oh! mama, how spiritless, how tame was

Edward’s manner in reading to us last night … I could hardly keep my seat.

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To hear those beautiful lines which have frequently almost driven me wild,

pronounced with such impenetrable calmness, such dreadful indifference!’ –

‘He would certainly have done more justice to simple and elegant prose. I

thought so at the time; but you would give him Cowper.’

‘Nay, mama, if he is not to be animated by Cowper! –’ 11

But as the novel progresses it becomes a far more subtle reflection on

different modes of sensibility. Elinor Dashwood’s dignified silence on

her own sufferings shows them to be just as intense as Marianne’s.

The popular novels of sensibility, however, placed strong emphasis on

the immediate nature of feelings. No sooner had the man or woman of

sensibility witnessed the suffering of some unfortunate than tears would

course freely down their cheeks in sympathy. Marianne Dashwood can

hardly keep her seat or her temper. A whole influential branch of social

and political philosophy developed from the medical understanding of

the responsiveness of the body’s nerves.

But what Jane Austen shows in Fanny Price’s mature reflections on

her beloved possessions, is something more profound – the workings of

a responsive sensibility over time. Even the modest furnishings of her

room are invested by Fanny with value:

The room was most dear to her, and she would not have changed its furniture

for the handsomest in the house, though what had been originally plain, had

suffered all the ill-usage of children.12

Its ‘greatest elegancies and ornaments’ consist of ‘a faded footstool of

Julia’s work, too ill done for the drawing room’ and ‘three transparencies,

made in a rage for transparencies’, of Tintern Abbey, a moonlit lake in

Cumberland and a cave in Italy. There is also a collection of family

profiles ‘thought unworthy of being anywhere else’. Pride of place,

however, goes to ‘a small sketch of a ship sent four years ago from

the Mediterranean’ by her brother William, a midshipman, ‘with HMS

Antwerp at the bottom, in letters as tall as the main-mast’.

But the particular moment when Jane Austen shows us Fanny’s room

in such detail is one when Fanny is perplexed and troubled: ‘To this nest

of comforts Fanny now walked down to try its influence on an agitated,

doubting spirit’.13 It is here, with the image of a ‘nest of comforts’,

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that we sense Austen consciously or unconsciously recalling a letter of

Cowper’s written to William Unwin on 30 April 1785:

Your mother and I walked yesterday in the Wilderness. As we entered the

gate, a glimpse of something white, contained in a little hole in the gate-post,

caught my eye. I looked again, and discovered a bird’s nest, with two tiny

eggs in it. By and by they will be fledged, and tailed, and get wing-feathers,

and fly. My case is somewhat similar to that of the parent bird. My nest is in

a little nook. Here I brood and hatch, and in due time my progeny takes wing

and whistles. 14

He will famously describe his ‘nook’ to Joseph Hill, 25 June 1785:

I write in a nook that I call my Boudoir. It is a summerhouse not much

bigger than a sedan chair, the door of which opens into the garden, that is

now crowded with pinks, roses, and honey-suckles, and the window into

my neighbour’s orchard. It formerly served an apothecary, now dead, as a

smoking-room; and under my feet is a trap- door, which once covered a hole

in the ground, where he kept his bottles. At present, however, it is dedicated

to sublimer uses. Having lined it with garden mats, and furnished it with

a table and two chairs, here I write all that I write in summer-time…. It is

secure from all noise, and a refuge from all intrusion; for intruders sometimes

trouble me in the winter evenings at Olney. But (thanks to my Boudoir!) I

can now hide myself from them. A poet’s retreat is sacred.15

We will not find it difficult to account for Jane Austen’s liking for the

miniature, familiar as we are with her remark about her ‘little bit (two

Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush’, although

we should be aware of the ironic context of her comment – a jovial letter

to a nephew on his aspirations to be a novelist.16

But why might she have been so attuned to Cowper’s evocation of his

little nook, where he can both take refuge and peep out at the world?

Jane Austen and melancholy

I think the answer lies in a full ten years of Jane Austen’s life about which

we know very little – the years between her father’s announcement of

his retirement as rector of Steventon, and the diminished family of Mrs

Austen, Jane and Cassandra finding a permanent home at Chawton

Cottage. Only a scattering of Austen’s letters was preserved from

this period, enough for us to be able to trace most of her movements.

We know the family took a succession of lodgings in Bath from 1801

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onwards; that some summers were spent at the seaside, others with

relatives; that following the Rev George Austen’s death in 1805, the

family moved first to Clifton and then to Southampton to be nearer the

two naval sons. Two years after this first move, she recalls the ‘happy

feelings of Escape!’.17 The house in Castle Square in Southampton feels

more like a home; there is a garden which she energetically starts to

plan. She insists on lilacs, and: ‘I could not do without a Syringa, for the

sake of Cowper’s Line’ adding ‘We talk also of a Laburnum’,18 referring

to the lines in ‘A Winter Walk at Noon’, Book VI of The Task:

… Laburnum rich

In streaming gold; syringa iv’ry pure (149-150)

But the really telling thing about this extended period is that Jane

Austen simply stops writing. She has been a writer since childhood,

producing a series of brashly comic fragments, novels, plays and poetry,

throughout her teenage years. In the early 1790s she completes ‘Elinor

and Marianne’, and ‘First Impressions’ – which will not be published

until 1811 and 1813 respectively under their new titles of Sense and

Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Later in the 1790s she wrote ‘Susan’

which would eventually become Northanger Abbey. But then she falls

silent. She tries revising ‘Susan’ for publication in 1802 and starts, but

abandons The Watsons in 1804.

The fact that she does not start writing again until the move to

Chawton in 1809, and the speed with which she produces all her novels,

revised and new, between then and her death in 1817, would suggest

that this long period of effective homelessness had a crushing effect on

her. It seems particularly striking that the first new novel she embarks

on after this extended silence is Mansfield Park, a book which draws its

emotional intensity from ideas of home and homelessness, of feeling an

outsider, an exile. I believe Jane Austen experienced these silent years

as, at least in part, a time of personal melancholy. She was probably

never ill, prostrated with the sort of nerves that perpetually trouble

Mrs Bennet. Rather, I think that internal evidence provided by her later

novels, in particular Mansfield Park and Persuasion, strongly suggests

she had no option but to choke back her own unhappiness. And in the

background of her novels there is always the sense of insecurity, that a

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death in the family may bring instant eviction from a family home. She

may make fun of Mrs Bennet’s perpetual fretting in Pride and Prejudice

about the entailed estate – the death of Mr Bennet and their eviction by

the usurping Mr Collins simply an unwittingly comic fantasy. But Sense

and Sensibility opens with the devastating loss of the Dashwoods’ family

home; in Emma, ever since the loss of the rectory (now the home of the

Eltons) following her husband’s death, Mrs Bates and her daughter have

lived in severely reduced circumstances; and Anne Elliot in Persuasion

loses her family home for a different reason – the extravagances of her

father that necessitate their having to rent out Kellynch.

‘He that attends to his interior self’

It is telling, therefore, that ‘home’ for Fanny Price is a matter of very

modest possessions. Austen mentions her pot of geraniums and shows us

she is well supplied with books – she is currently reading a life of Lord

Macartney and Crabbe’s newly published Tales (1812).19 The presence

of a copy of Samuel Johnson’s Idler essays is a nod to Austen’s favourite

prose writer. This little collection gains in poignancy when we learn

that the consequence of the Austens leaving Steventon Rectory was that

everyone’s books had to be sold. Not only did her father’s considerable

library have to go – his 500 volumes representing quite a collection for

a financially encumbered rector and father of eight – but Jane Austen’s

own collection of books went too. Clothes can be transported from

one place of lodging to another, but the Austens evidently were not to

be burdened in their new itinerant life with their books. Jane Austen’s

piano, too, had to be left behind. Her writing desk assumes even greater

importance when we see how very little she then possessed.

It is significant therefore that Austen emphasises the central place

of books in Fanny’s life, going as far as to name those currently on

her desk. This is unusual for Austen. Some of her heroines are great

readers – Mr Darcy’s veiled compliment to Elizabeth Bennet implies

that she improves her mind by extensive reading; some are not – Mr

Knightley knows Emma has been making lists of edifying books since

she was twelve but never had the staying power required to read them.

Austen rarely names books or authors, however. So Fanny’s choice of

serious historical biography, contemporary (if uncontroversial) poetry,

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and edifying, entertaining prose, with no mention of novels, signals both

Fanny’s intelligence and her intellectual curiosity. But it is more than

this. Here, as never before in Austen, books are emblems of Fanny’s

rich inner life.

Again we can see the influence of Cowper. Today we have no

difficulty imagining a writer retiring to some secluded cottage in order

to write. But in Cowper’s day literary life happened predominantly in

London, the centre for booksellers and publishers, for reviewers and

critics. There was a flourishing of literary circles – Dr Johnson founded

the Literary Club and even the shy Cowper enjoyed the Nonsense Club.

For Cowper to make a deliberate decision to leave the metropolis for a

life of permanent rural retirement was certainly unusual. All the more

surprising was it, therefore, that it was only at the age of sixty that he

found literary success with Poems in 1782 and The Task in 1785. The

poet whom Jane Austen heard read aloud since childhood (she turned ten

in 1785) was a new, fresh voice. Cowper fully understood his originality,

writing to William Unwin in 1784,

My descriptions are all from nature: not one of them second-hand. My

delineations of the heart are from my own experience: not one of them

borrowed from books….20

It is revealing, I think, that both Jane Austen’s favourite writers, Johnson

and Cowper, were melancholics. Although biographical details of the

extent of their personal sufferings would not emerge until after their

deaths in 1784 and 1800 respectively, the melancholic sensibility of each

was clear in their published writings. For both, their principal concern

was human suffering. It is the focus of some of Johnson’s most profound

Rambler essays. ‘The sharpest and most melting sorrow,’ he writes in

Rambler 17, ‘arises from the loss of those whom we have loved with

tenderness’, adding ‘friendship between mortals can be contracted on no

other terms, than that one must sometime mourn for the other’s death’.

Rambler 47 again addresses the theme:

But for sorrow there is no remedy provided by nature … it requires what it

cannot hope, that the laws of the universe should be repealed; that the dead

should return, or the past should be recalled.

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We know she read Cowper’s 1782 Poems from her breezy declaration

that she is ‘Mistress of all I survey’ in 1813 as she enjoys the splendours

of her brother’s Godmersham library, an allusion, of course, to ‘Verses,

supposed to be written by Alexander Selkirk’.21 But she would also have

known his reference in ‘Retirement’ to melancholy being the malady

that ‘claims most compassion, and receives the least’(302) and his

telling lines:

But, with a soul that ever felt the sting

Of sorrow, sorrow is a sacred thing. (315-6)

She would, of course, have been familiar with the most poignant

autobiographical passages in The Task. But there are other quiet moments

in that poem which seem also to have shaped her thinking. Let us take

Cowper’s important articulation of the importance of the inner life from

Book III:

He that attends to his interior self,

That has a heart, and keeps it; has a mind

That hungers, and supplies it; and who seeks

A social, not a dissipated life,

Has business; feels himself engag’d t’atchieve

No unimportant, though a silent task. (373-8)

The heroines of both Mansfield Park and Persuasion, Jane Austen’s later

novels, are unusual in being introverted young women. The attention

each pays to her inner life, her ‘interior self’, gives each an exceptional

depth. With this depth, of course, comes the capacity for suffering, but

also for intense if quiet joy. We note that Austen writes of Fanny late in

the novel:

but her happiness was of a quiet, deep, heart-swelling sort; and though never

a great talker, she was always more inclined to silence when feeling most

strongly.22

Cowper’s poetry would have demonstrated to Jane Austen that it was

possible to have a vivid inner life while living in seclusion. She would

have seen too that this inner life could be outward-looking, fully engaged

from within ‘the loop-holes of retreat’ with the exterior world.23 The

range of topics Cowper addressed was wide – contemporary British

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politics, war with the Americans and their European allies, the slave

trade, the Gordon Riots, hunting, education, enclosure, earthquakes.

She would have been drawn, as Coleridge was, by Cowper’s

celebration of the simple delights of home on a wintry night, the ‘fireside

enjoyments, home-born happiness’, the hours ‘Of long uninterrupted

ev’ning’ while outside the frost rages abroad.24 It is an evocation of

hearth and home that has yet to be subsumed into an ideology of family

life by the Victorians. What Cowper is rejoicing in is a sort of delicious

solitude.

Jane Austen’s letters reveal her own love of solitude – either of quiet

companionship, or the rare treat of having a room all to herself. ‘To sit

in idleness over a good fire in a well-proportioned room is a luxurious

sensation’, she wrote to her sister Cassandra in 1800, adding ‘Sometimes

we talked & sometimes we were quite silent’. Some years later, staying

at her brother’s at Godmersham, we see her snatching half an hour to

write to Cassandra, sketching herself as ‘Very snug, in my own room,

lovely morng., excellent fire, fancy me’. On a wet day in the summer of

1809 she reported: ‘I am moved down into the Library for the sake of a

fire which agreeably surprised us … & here in warm and happy solitude

proceed to acknowledge this day’s Letter’. 25

Happy solitude beside a fire! It is all the more evocative, therefore,

later in Mansfield Park when Sir Thomas Bertram discovers that Fanny

has never been allowed a fire in her room. As so often in this most

subtle of novels, the interior drama for Fanny is painfully complex, but

cannot be explained to anyone else. Sir Thomas for the very first time

has sought out Fanny in her domain. He has come to put well-meaning

pressure on her to accept Henry Crawford’s offer of marriage. Fanny

has had abundant evidence of the impulsive immorality underlying

Henry’s exterior charm. But even her champion Edmund is blinded by

his infatuation for Mary Crawford, Henry’s sister. And to no one – not

even to herself – can she fully confess her feelings for Edmund. Sir

Thomas briefly considers and immediately rejects the idea that this might

underlie Fanny’s inexplicable reluctance to encourage Henry Crawford:

‘It is hardly possible that your affections –’ he begins, before dismissing

the notion: ‘No, No, I know that is quite out of the question’. As readers

we feel the blow of this callous dismissal. And worse is to follow when

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Sir Thomas becomes angry with Fanny: ‘You do not owe me the duty

of a child. But Fanny, if your heart can acquit you of ingratitude –’. The

scene ends with Fanny in tears with ‘no one to take her part’.26

What are her feelings, then, when despite his evident displeasure,

Sir Thomas has ordered a fire to be lit in Fanny’s room, its symbolic

warmth now compromised by Fanny’s painful feelings of being

misunderstood?

Where Cowper’s influence might be behind Jane Austen’s symbolic

use of the lit fire – Fanny is being newly cherished by the family – it

can also be seen in the novel’s sharply satirical commentary on the new

eighteenth-century craze amongst the gentry for ‘improving’ their houses

and estates. As Maria Bertram approaches twenty-one, she eyes up her

prospects. Marriage to the stolid Mr Rushworth ‘would give her the

enjoyment of a larger income than her father’s’, a house in town, and the

fine country estate of Sotherton.27 At the same time Mansfield welcomes

the eligible siblings, Henry and Mary Crawford. The ensuing discussion

about Sotherton, its house and grounds, is full of subtle clues.

Rushworth only has to see how a friend, the owner of Compton, has

‘had his grounds laid out by an improver’ to feel Sotherton looks like a

prison, despite its seven hundred acres. His impulsive decision to have a

particular avenue of oaks cut down to improve the ‘prospect’ famously

emboldens Fanny’s response already quoted.28

Mary Crawford, meanwhile, assesses the eligibility of Tom Bertram

purely in terms of his property:

… he and his situation might do. She looked about her with due consideration,

and found almost every thing in his favour, a park, a real park five miles

round, a spacious modern-built house, so well placed and well screened as

to deserve to be in any collection of engravings of gentlemen’s seats in the

kingdom, and only wanting to be completely new furnished …. It might do

very well; she believed she should accept him. 29

Henry Crawford, we are told, has a ‘great dislike’ to ‘anything like a

permanence of abode, or limitation of society.’30 But later in the novel,

with his new project of making Fanny fall in love with him, he tells

the assembled company of accidentally coming across Thornton Lacey,

Edmund’s future living. The parsonage, he decides ‘is by no means

bad’, but it must be improved: ‘the house must be turned to front the east

15

instead of the north’ and ‘some very pretty meadows’ must be bought so

that they can form a new garden. Even when Edmund politely states that

the house and grounds can be ‘made comfortable’ without any major

changes, Henry persists.31 Edmund must transform the parsonage. It is

unstylish, merely

a solid walled, roomy, mansion-like looking house, such as one might suppose

a respectable old country family had lived in from generation to generation,

through two centuries at least –

We are alert to Henry’s dismissive tone: with very little effort it might

become ‘a gentleman’s residence’. But Edmund should set his sights

higher, Henry insists: ‘you may raise it into a place’. We note the

fashionable ‘place’, a term which robs the house of any home-like

qualities.

Ever chameleon-like, Henry suddenly decides he wants to rent Thornton

Lacey himself, so he can come up from London and hunt. He has, he

announces, set his heart upon … a little homestall –’.32 The resonance

of the unusual word ‘homestall’ becomes evident when we realise Austen

found it in The Task. The context redoubles her comic irony, for Cowper

is writing about Omai, the Tahitian brought to England by Captain Cook

in 1774. Cowper imagines Omai’s return to Tahiti in 1776:

…thou hast found again,

Thy cocoas and bananas, palms and yams,

And homestall thatch’d with leaves. (I. 639-41)

‘But hast thou found/ Their former charms …?’ Cowper asks. In the

ensuing passage he meditates on home and homesickness. He imagines

Omai, after his period of celebrity in London, no longer at home in

Tahiti:

Methinks I see thee straying on the beach,

And asking of the surge that bathes thy foot

If ever it has wash’d our distant shore. (654-56)

Jane Austen, in other words, not only uses Cowper’s ‘homestall’ to

reinforce Henry Crawford’s shallowness, but as another subtle reflection

on home and homelessness. So too would she have known Cowper’s

powerful satire on the period’s relentless drive for ‘improvement’ – ‘the

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idol of the age’ – and the glib readiness to swap one house for another,

the embodiment of which was Capability Brown:

He speaks. The lake in front becomes a lawn,

Woods vanish, hills subside, and vallies rise,

And streams as if created for his use,

Pursue the track of his directing wand

Sinuous or straight, now rapid and now slow,

Now murm’ring soft, now roaring in cascades

Ev’n as he bids. (The Task, III. 774-780)

I will not develop here Mansfield Park’s masterfully comic scene set in

the Sotherton’s ‘wilderness’, with its symbolically locked gate, as this

has been the focus of many insightful readings. I want instead to pursue

Austen’s profound understanding of the significance of home and the

ways in which she draws on Cowper’s reflections on the importance of

the familiar landscape, and of a home imbued with memories.

‘As if to be home again’

In less psychologically acute novels, a heroine’s separation from her

family at a young age might be no more than a convenient plot device.

But in the final third of Mansfield Park Jane Austen develops the theme

of home and homelessness with extraordinary insight, clearly influenced

by her reading of Cowper. For the eighteen-year-old Fanny time has not

dulled her feelings. Instead she has cherished an image of home that has

become increasingly idealised. When Sir Thomas Bertram suggests she

spend two months with her family, she is delighted. But she is unaware

that his underlying motive is to make her reconsider Henry Crawford’s

unwelcome proposal of marriage. For Fanny, the offer seems wholly

benevolent, and her joy in it releases long suppressed feelings:

The remembrance of all her earliest pleasures, and of what she had suffered

in being torn from them, came over her with renewed strength, and it seemed

as if to be home again would heal every pain that had since grown out of

separation.33

With that phrase – ‘as if to be home again’ – Austen quietly reveals the

pathos of Fanny’s feelings. After nearly ten years, we realise, Fanny

still feels she is not at home in Mansfield and remains unvalued. Her

17

reflection immediately afterwards evokes the dream of home that she

has cherished:

To be in the centre of such a circle, loved by so many, and more loved by all

than she had ever been before, to feel affection without fear or restraint, to

feel herself the equal of those who surrounded her … This was a prospect to

be dwelt on with a fondness that could be but half acknowledged.34

Austen shows the damage done to Fanny’s sense of worth. She has

evidently rationalised the silence from her birth family as being her own

fault:

She had probably alienated Love by the helplessness and fretfulness of a

fearful temper, or been unreasonable in wanting a larger share than any one

among so many could deserve.35

The bitter irony for Fanny is that her childhood home – her parents and

siblings in Portsmouth – is nothing like the idealised circle of which

she had dreamt. The squalid house, the loud, drunken father, negligent

mother and squabbling siblings, the youngest forever ‘chasing each other

up and down stairs, and tumbling about and hallooing’, come as a rude

shock. Left alone in the company of her father, absorbed in a newspaper

and ignoring her, Fanny’s distress is evident in her broken thoughts:

‘She was at home. But alas! It was not such a home, she had not such a

welcome, as –- she checked herself; she was unreasonable. What right

had she to be of importance to her family?’ Once again, Fanny finds

herself virtually invisible.36

Fanny’s unhappiness intensifies over the weeks as no news comes

from Mansfield. She begins to fear that she has been forgotten. A further

dread is her expectation of hearing that Edmund has married Mary

Crawford. Then Edmund writes of his painful discovery of a certain

shallow worldliness in Mary, but that he continues to hope that away

from the influence of her London friends she may still agree to marry

him. His misery allows him to articulate his feelings towards Fanny –

not yet feelings of romantic passion – but a deep fraternal love which

Fanny has long craved. And more than this, he expresses the need he and

his parents have for Fanny to return:

You are very much wanted. I miss you more than I can express. My mother

desires her best love, and hopes to hear from you soon. She talks of you

18

almost every hour, and I am sorry to find how many weeks more she is likely

to be without you. My Father means to fetch you himself, but it will not be

till after Easter, when he has business in town. You are happy at Portsmouth,

I hope, but this must not be a yearly visit. I want you at home, that I may have

your opinion about Thornton Lacey. 37

Half hidden in this request for advice on his future home is what is

possibly Mansfield Park’s most touching line: ‘I want you at home’.

Shortly afterwards Tom Bertram’s serious illness moves the normally

indolent Lady Bertram to write directly to Fanny ‘how glad I should be,

if you were here to comfort me.’38 But Easter comes and goes and still

Fanny is not sent for. Her private suffering is intense:

… it was a cruel, a terrible delay to her. The end of April was coming on; it

would soon be almost three months instead of two that she had been absent

from them all, and that her days had been passing in a state of penance…39

Her eagerness, her impatience, her longings to be with them, were such as to

bring a line or two of Cowper’s ‘Tirocinium’ for ever before her. ‘With what

intense desire she wants her home’, was continually on her tongue, as the

truest description of a yearning which she could not suppose any schoolboy’s

bosom to feel more keenly.40

The fact that, at the painful crisis of the novel, Fanny turns to Cowper

and to this particular poem is highly significant. Events have caused

all the central characters to focus on what home really means to them.

Maria, unknown to her family, is about to abandon her stifling marital

home, while illness has made Tom Bertram newly appreciate Mansfield.

Edmund continues to agonise over Mary Crawford, knowing that a

country parsonage has little appeal to her. Meanwhile Mary, disturbingly,

calculates that Tom Bertram’s death would mean Edmund’s becoming

heir to Mansfield, making him a vastly improved prospective suitor.

Meanwhile both Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram discover Mansfield is

not home without the comforting presence of Fanny.

We have already considered the powerful psychological influence on

Jane Austen of finally acquiring a permanent home in 1809. Those of

us who, like her, love William Cowper’s poetry will be fully aware of

the deep emotional attachment he had throughout his life to the idea of

home. Austen would have read Cowper’s moving poem about receiving

his mother’s portrait, the gift of which unleashes an intense flood of

19

memories of his boyhood and in particular the death of his mother.

We will also have read Adelphi, Cowper’s spiritual autobiography, as

Austen probably had not, with its painful evocation of the bullying he

experienced as a young boy at Westminster School.

His feelings give particular intensity to ‘Tirocinium’. Addressed to

his friend William Unwin, the poem is a stern indictment of boarding

schools. Separating father and child will, Cowper writes, ‘lac’rate both

your heart and his!’(558). He strongly recommends that Unwin tutor

his two young sons at home, painting a picture of a homesick boy at

boarding school, sadly marking off the days till the holidays:

Th’ indented stick, that loses day by day,

Notch after notch, till all are smooth’d away,

Bears witness, long ere his dismission come,

With what intense desire he wants his home. (559-62)

Jane Austen suggests that Fanny has taken the line deeply to heart. And

the poem’s influence continues to be felt in what follows. For there is

further pain awaiting Fanny on returning home, as there is for Cowper’s

schoolboy. ‘A disappointment waits him even there’, Cowper writes:

Arrived, he feels an unexpected change;

He blushes, hangs his head, is shy and strange,

No longer takes, as once, with fearless ease,

His fav’rite stand between his father’s knees,

But seeks the corner of some distant seat,

And eyes the door, and watches a retreat,

And, least familiar where he should be most,

Feels all his happiest privileges lost.

Alas, poor boy!—the natural effect

Of love by absence chill’d into respect. (566-76)

And here is Fanny experiencing the same disappointment:

When she had been coming to Portsmouth, she had loved to call it her home,

had been fond of saying that she was going home; the word had been very

dear to her; and so it still was, but it must be applied to Mansfield. That was

now the home. Portsmouth was Portsmouth; Mansfield was home.41

Fanny, of course, will be rewarded with a true home – first at Mansfield

Park itself and then at Mansfield’s parsonage as Edmund’s wife. But

Jane Austen herself has found a new happiness, not in a sudden coup

20

de foudre of romantic love, but in a Cowperian vision of quiet domestic

happiness. Comfortable and content at Chawton for what would be the

remainder of her short life, she could echo Cowper’s line ‘Domestic

happiness, thou only bliss’, and share his vision of the secret of that

happiness:

Friends, books, a garden, and perhaps his pen,

Delightful industry enjoy’d at home…42

Bibliography

Austen, Jane, Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. Deirdre Le Faye, Oxford University Press,

1997.

—, Juvenilia, ed. Peter Sabor, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane

Austen, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

—, Mansfield Park, ed. Kathryn Sutherland, Penguin Classics, 1996.

—, Sense and Sensibility, ed. Ros Ballaster, Penguin Classics, 1995.

Cowper, William, William Cowper, The Centenary Letters, ed. Simon Malpas,

Carcanet Press, 2000.

—, William Cowper, The Task and Selected Other Poems, ed. James Sambrook,

Longman, 1994.

—, Cowper: Poetical Works, ed. H.S.Milford, 4th edn. revised Norma Russell,

Oxford University Press, 1967 (for ‘Retirement’ and ‘Tirocinium’).

Johnson, Samuel, Samuel Johnson, Selected Essays, ed. David Womersley,

Penguin, 2003.

Copyright

All articles are subject to copyright

Footnotes

The Cowper and Newton Journal includes scholarly articles, notes and reviews on Cowper, Newton and their contemporaries, as well as more general articles from the 18th century.

Joint Editors

Professor Vincent NeweyTony SewardDr William Hutchings

Editorial Board:

Dr Ashley Chantler (University of Chester), Dr Michael Davies (University of Liverpool), Kate Bostock (Museum Trustee), Professor Martha J. Koehler (University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, PA), Professor Bob Owens (University of Bedfordshire).

Reviews Editor: Tony Seward

The predecessor to The Cowper and Newton Journal was The Cowper and Newton Bulletin.  Published in 8 volumes from 2002-2009, it contained museum news in each issue as well as one or more full-length scholarly articles and shorter notes.

References

1 Mansfield Park, p.10, ch.1

2 Ibid. p.23, ch.3

3 Ibid. p.48, ch.6; Fanny quotes from The Task, I.338-9

4 Ibid. p.126, ch.16

5 Ibid. p.126, ch.16

6 Cowper, Letter to William Bull, 3 August 1784; Letter to Lady Hesketh, 10

Nov. 1787

7 Mansfield Park, p.126, ch.16

8 Ibid.

9 Jane Austen, Letter to Cassandra Austen, 15-16 Oct 1808.

21

10 Juvenilia, pp.59-60.

11 Sense and Sensibility, p.19, ch.3

12 Mansfield Park, pp.126-7, ch.16

13 Ibid. p.127, ch.16

14 Cowper, Letter to William Unwin, 30 April 1785

15 Ibid, Letter to Joseph Hill, 25 June 1785

16 Jane Austen, Letter to James Edward Austen, 16-17 Dec. 1816

17 Jane Austen, Letter to Cassandra Austen, 30 June-1 July 1808

18 Ibid. Letter to Cassandra, 8-9 Feb. 1807

19 Mansfield Park, p.130, ch.16

20 Cowper, Letter to William Unwin, 10 Oct. 1784

21 Jane Austen, Letter to Cassandra Austen, 23-24 Oct. 1813

22 Mansfield Park, p.306, ch.37

23 The Task, IV.88

24 The Task, IV.140, 142, 309.

25 Jane Austen, Letters to Cassandra, 8-9 Nov. 1800, 6-7 Nov.1813, 30 June – 1

July 1809

26 Mansfield Park, pp.261, 263, 265, ch.32

27 Ibid. p.34, ch.4

28 Ibid. p.45, ch.6

29 Ibid. p.41, ch.5

30 Ibid. p.36, ch.4

31 Ibid. p.201, ch.25

32 Ibid. pp.202, ch.25

33 Ibid. p 306, ch.37

34 Ibid., p.306, ch.37

35 Ibid. p.307, ch.37

36 Ibid. p.317, ch.38

37 Ibid. p.347, ch.44

38 Ibid. p.349, ch.44

39 Ibid. p.352, ch.45

40 Ibid. p.353. ch.45

41 Ibid. p.353, ch.45.

42 The Task, III.41, 355-6

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